Words are powerful because we give them power.
I’m a college student working towards my degrees in Secondary English Education and K-12 Reading Education. Words are a big deal to me. It should come as no surprise, then, that when a professor recently asked a group of us to choose an adjective for ourselves, I was ready. I love words, and I know the ones that belong to me. I chose “spirited.” My classmates, with whom I’ve been spending time for about a month now, were given an opportunity to consider my word before offering alternates if they did not agree. Much to my surprise, one immediately raised his hand.
“No offense, but that’s the opposite of the word I would pick for you,” he began. I tried my best to reserve offense, but we all know that “no offense” usually precedes a statement that will inevitably be, well, offensive.
“You’re quiet, and respectful, and so nice,” he continued. My offense faded a bit into the background. “You clearly think of other people before you speak. That’s the opposite of spirited, that’s gentle.”
His “no offense” comment may have morphed into a compliment, but I was still a bit unsettled by his words. I went home and thought about it all night, and all morning today, and I’ve finally realized why.
He believes, based on his comments, that somebody who identifies as “spirited” cannot also be kind, quiet, considerate, or gentle. In fact, he sees gentle as the opposite of spirited. But is that the case? Are these antonyms? My inner English nerd was on the case and rushed to the dictionary.
The dictionary app on my laptop defines gentle as follows: “Mild in temperament or behavior; kind or tender: he was a gentle, sensitive man.” Okay, so far so good. Gentle is decidedly not an offensive identifier. Spirited, then, is someone who is “full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination: a spirited campaigner for women’s rights.” Again, nothing offensive about that.
I may be wrong here, but nothing about those two definitions strikes me as particularly opposing. These words may not be synonyms, but they certainly aren’t antonyms either. In fact, I find the definitions rather complementary. A person who could describe themselves as both spirited and gentle seems like someone that I would very much like to be friends with. So why does this classmate of mine find these adjectives so contrasting?
Well, I can’t tell you for sure. I can’t read his mind, or interview him on the subject, or psycho-analyze him. What I can do, however, is speculate (something that us English nerds know how to do). Our society has created the understanding that if you want to be spirited, bold, and enthusiastic (and, as a result, powerful or influential or listened to), you cannot be gentle. You cannot be kind. You cannot be tender. And if you want to be kind, tender, and gentle, you will not be thought of as spirited or enthusiastic or determined. And I’m not just pulling this out of nowhere – you can see this in the media, in books and movies, as personified by leaders and politicians, perpetuated by protesters and bloggers and alt-right website owners. According to public perception, the Venn diagram of these two words is just a couple of separate circles on a page.
I would like to, respectfully, light this understanding on fire. Because, and no offense here to the kid in my class, it is just plain wrong. According to my dictionary, the opposite of gentle is actually brutal. And the opposite of spirited? Lifeless. I do not want to live in a world where my only choices are to be gentle but lifeless, or spirited but brutal. That world is dark, divided, and unproductive. In fact, it looks a lot like the world we live in right now. But it doesn’t have to! Our world can be light, united, and productive!
I think that this misconception that gentleness cannot accompany spirit is leading to a world full of people leaning into their spirit and, because they think that they must, into brutality. If they have an opinion, they are going to beat you over the head with it until you agree with them. We all know these people. We have all been these people. We’ve all yelled at the friend with whom we disagree, or posted the joke on Facebook that slams the other side, or watched the news network that calls anyone different from them idiotic or dangerous or wrong. There is no gentleness here, but for us to move forward as a country we have to find it.
I’m not perfect, and I have been that person more times than I haven’t. I’ve embraced my brutality, and my anger, on the quest to being spirited. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that it has never worked. Not once. Nobody has ever listened to me because I yelled loud enough, or lobbed the perfect insult, or let anger take over my mind. No, the moments that I was able to reach people were moments of gentleness. The moments where I reflected and chose to embrace my kindness and my tenderness were the moments that I was able to reach out and affect others. And I did not have to sacrifice my spirit to achieve those moments. I let the emotions work together, hand in hand, to speak with kindness and compassion and enthusiasm and determination. I was both gentle and spirited. I can be both. We can be both.
I’m not going to tell you what to do. However, I am going to make a commitment to let gentleness and spiritedness coexist more regularly in my life. These words are not antonyms, so I’m going to stop treating them like they are. I’m going to stop believing that to be heard I have to be angry, and that to be gentle I have to be silent. That doesn’t mean that I won’t speak up with passion against injustice or for progress. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my beliefs or be silent about what matters. It just means that when I do speak, I’m going to speak with love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”